Monday, January 2, 2012

Open Water by Pol Robinson

Book:  Open Water
Author:  Pol Robinson
Publisher:  Bella Books

Welcome to The Rainbow Reader 2012!

It’s no secret; I love sports and books about sports – especially books about lesbians and sports.

One of the very best parts of any even numbered year is that we get to watch the Olympics.  This year, the very best athletes in the world will travel to London to take part in the most anticipated sports competition known to mankind, the XXX Olympiad. 

The Summer Olympics offers sports fans and casual observers the opportunity to witness competition in a wide array of sports that rarely grace the advertisement happy medium of broadcast television.  We finally get the opportunity to spend untold minutes choosing previously unknown favorites in events like Ping Pong, Handball, Match Racing, Dressage, Saber, Archery, Race Walking, Water Polo, and Rowing.

Let’s face it, The Powers That Be at the Network give us hours upon hours of money events like sprinting, swimming, and Men’s Basketball, but secretly every one of us wants to watch at least one Steeplechase.

Be that as it may, the beauty of the Olympics is that we are granted two weeks every four years to broaden our summer and/or winter sports horizons, and catch a brief glimpse of these events and athletes that never have the opportunity to capture our attention.

Now, every sport has it’s own language – boot, bowball, button, gate, gunwale, keel, loom, Macon blade, rib, rigger, scull, skeg, and my personal favorite, cox box – all describe various aspects, elements, and pieces of rowing equipment.

And then, who can forget “repechage”, perhaps the sexiest word in the lexicon of all sports.

Pol Robinson takes readers back to Beijing and the Summer Olympics of 2008 in her debut novel, Open Water. Cass Flynn took up rowing later in her collegiate life, and was at the top of her sport when a pizza delivery boy ran a light and almost ended her rowing career.  But she was determined to come back, and her hard work and dedication to the sport landed her a last minute spot on the US Olympic Team.  Upon arriving in Beijing, she meets Laura Kelley, Captain of the U.S. squad and stroke of the eight-boat.  Laura is strong, smart, and beautiful, but she is fighting emotional demons that leave her edgy and sullen.  However, the two have an immediate attraction, that both initially try to suppress.  After a rocky start, both women agree to restart their relationship, and slowly begin to build from there. Of course, Laura has a tendency to let herself get closer to Cass, and then back away with no explanation. 

This push and pull continues as Laura’s sinister and angry ex, Shelly, steps into the picture and tries every angle to hurt both Laura and Cass.  Finally both women admit an attraction, but Laura has pushed Cass away too many times.  Still, Laura cares enough about Cass to change her ways, and work her way toward love once and for all.

One of the downfalls of most sport fiction is that the sport is overwhelmed by the story surrounding it.  For instance, we know more about the speed skater’s broken heart in high school than we do about her split times in the 1,500-meter race or her technique in the final lap against the reining World Champion.  

One of the joys of Open Water is that Ms. Robinson skillfully brings the reader into the heads of the women rowing, and into the teammates and coaches watching.  The reader gets an appreciation for the grueling nature of the sport, and the skill and precision needed to reach such an elite level.  She simply yet expertly describes the equipment, the anxiety, the determination, and the exhaustion.

Not to mention the chunky air quality of downtown Beijing.

A recurring complaint is that a significant number of lesbian novels rely on the overused literary convention of “love at first sight”.

And, as a reviewer, I always get a little twitchy when I sense it happening. 

Ms. Robinson firmly inserted this convention into Open Water, but she doesn’t allow her characters to fall victim to it.  Cass and Laura do have a moment in the Beijing airport where their eyes meet, but the characters are crafted in such a way that neither of them can accept that feeling at the moment.  Cass has to figure out what it means to be in love, and Laura has to learn to forgive herself for something that wasn’t really her fault in the first place.  This pacing allows the reader to get a better feeling for the process of the characters struggling within themselves, while trying to open up to something neither saw coming.

My only significant criticism of Open Water is that I really didn’t develop a deeper appreciation for Laura, who was a de facto main character as Cass’ love interest.  Cass mainly narrates the book, and we have guest narration by her roommate and the Coach, but very little access to Laura’s point of view.  We see her struggles and her emotional acceptance and growth at arms length.  As the book moves past the push and pull events into the ultimate ‘will they/won’t they’ aspect of the relationship, Laura’s decisions and growth are made off page, and the reader really only knows what Cass is told by Laura. 

Cass is taking a lot on faith, but then again, haven’t we all?

Still, Open Water is a fast and fun read, you do care about the characters and the outcome of the races, and you want the Big Bad to get her comeuppance.  Pol Robinson’s debut is a solid book that will surely get each and every reader into the Olympic spirit, and make us pay a little more attention to the fascinating sport of rowing.  

I’m giving this spunky little debut 4.7 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale, and looking forward to Pol Robinson’s next major event.

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